Democracy threatens to sunset in Central Europe
In Poland, Romania and Hungary, the rule of law is in dangerous retreat.
AS POPULIST political parties advance their agendas in Poland, Hungary and Romania, pluralist democratic norms are being subverted, and a slide toward authoritarianism is giving way to incipient authoritarianism. The assault is focused on the rule of law and its guarantor, an independent judiciary.
In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party, having already taken control of the country’s constitutional court and lower tribunals, has now moved to purge the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of civil and criminal cases as well as of election results. New rules mandating younger retirement ages would force out 27 of the court’s 72 justices, though some, including Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf , are refusing to submit.
The rollback of Poland’s independent judiciary is the latest move reflecting the party’s overt contempt for Western principles of liberal democracy. In response, the European Union has embarked on a disciplinary process, but, shielded in the process by a similarly autocratic regime in Hungary, Poland is unlikely to suffer the pain of real sanctions. “This is the path of civil war,” warned Lech Walesa, the labor leader whose Solidarity movement was instrumental in overthrowing Poland’s communist government in the 1980s.
In Romania, where the governing Social Democratic party’s leader has been twice convicted on abuses in office, the party has struck back by attempting to water down anti-corruption laws. That represents a sharp blow to a decade of aggressive prosecutions of graft in that country, where it thrived for two decades following communism’s collapse.
The party leader, Liviu Dragnea, who has been convicted of electoral fraud and abuse of office — the latter for maintaining two party members on the public payroll for seven years even though they did nothing in the way of government work — has taken refuge from the scandals in the way scoundrels often do: by portraying himself as a victim. Attacking the judiciary as a “parallel state,” he maintains that dark forces are arrayed against him; his allies, taking their cue from President Trump, liken Mr. Dragnea’s supposed persecution to the investigation of Russia’s role in Mr. Trump’s victory.
Anti-democratic forces in both countries are emboldened by Hungary, which, despite being considerably smaller than either of them, has thumbed its nose at the E.U. even as it turns away from democracy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power since 2010, has silenced the independent media, bullied opponents, vilified immigrants and railed against institutions that have failed to salute him. To date, the E.U. has devised no effective response to those affronts to its values, although E.U. subsidies buttress Hungary’s economy, as they do Poland’s and Romania’s.
Democratic forces in all three countries are fighting back, refusing to acquiesce in the revival of authoritarianism in a region whose experience of it was all too recent. Their courage is inspiring, but they deserve better than Washington’s indifference and Brussels’s impotence.